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Full text of "The Negro's debt to Lincoln"

THE NEGRO'S DEBT TO LINCOLN 





ROBERT RUSSA MOTON 

Principal of Tuskegee Institute 



Reprinted Jrom the Southern 
Workman for July 1922 



Digitized by the Internet Archive 

in 2010 with funding from 

The Institute of Museum and Library Services through an Indiana State Library LSTA Grant 



http://www.archive.org/details/negrosdebttolincOOmoto 



THE NEGRO'S DEBT TO LINCOLN* 

BY ROBERT RUSSA MOTON 

Principal of Tuskegee Institute 

TT7HEN the Pilgrim Fathers set foot upon the shores of 
V V America, in 1620, they laid the foundations of our national 
existence upon the bed-rock of liberty. From that day to this, 
liberty has been the common bond of our united people. In 1776 
the altars of a new nation were set up in the name of liberty, and 
the flag of freedom unfurled before the nations of the earth. In 
1812, in the name of liberty, we bared our youthful might and 
struck for the freedom of the seas. Again, in '61, when the char- 
ter of the nation's birth was assailed, the sons of liberty declared 
anew the principles of their fathers and liberty became co-exten- 
sive with the Union. In '98 the call once more was heard and 
freedom became co-extensive with the hemisphere. And as we 
stand in solemn silence here today, there still comes rumbling out 
of the East the slowly dying echoes of the last great struggle to 
make freedom co-extensive with the seven seas. Freedom is the 
life-blood of the nation. Freedom is the heritage bequeathed to 
all her sons. For all who reflect upon the glory of our Republic, 
freedom is the underlying philosophy of our national existence! 

CONFLICT OF TWO GREAT FORCES 

But at the same time another influence was working within the 
nation. While the Mayflower was riding at anchor preparing for 
her voyage from Plymouth, another ship had already arrived at 
Jamestown. The first was to bear the pioneers of freedom free- 
dom of thought and freedom of conscience ; the latter had already 
borne the pioneers of bondage, a bondage repressive alike to body, 
mind, and spirit. Here, then, upon American soil, met, within a 
year, the two great forces that were to shape the destiny of the 
nation. They developed side by side. Freedom was the great 
compelling force that dominated all, and, like a great and shining 
light, beckoned the oppressed of every nation to the hospitality of 
these shores. But slavery, like a brittle thread, was woven year 
by year into the fabric of the nation's life. They who for them- 
selves sought liberty and paid the price thereof in precious blood 



u * o£ d ™ S o d ™ Vere( ? at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. 
May SO, 1922. The other speakers were President Harding and former President Taft. 



and priceless treasure, somehow still found it possible, while de- 
fending its eternal principles for themselves, to withhold that 
same precious boon from others. 

And how shall we account for it, except it be that in the 
providence of God the black race in America was thrust across 
the path of the onward-marching white race to demonstrate, not 
only for America, but for the world, whether the principles of 
freedom are of universal application, and ultimately to extend 
its blessings to all mankind. 

In the process of time, as was inevitable, these great forces — 
the forces of liberty and the forces of bondage — met in open con- 
flict upon the field of battle. And how strange it is, through the 
same over-ruling providence, that children of those who bought 
and sold their fellows into bondage should be among those who 
cast aside ties of language, of race, of religion, and even of kin- 
ship, in order that a people, not of their own race nor of their 
own creed or color but sharing a common humanity, should have 
the same measure of liberty and freedom which they themselves 
enjoyed. 

FREEDOM'S costly sacrifice 

What a costly sacrifice upon the altar of freedom ! How costly 
the world can never know nor justly estimate. The flower of the 
nation's manhood and the accumulated treasure of two hundred 
and fifty years of unremitting toil were offered up ; and at length, 
when the bitter strife was over, when the marshalled hosts on 
both sides had turned again to broken, desolated firesides, a cruel 
fate, unsatisfied with the awful toll of four long years of carnage, 
struck at the nation's head and brought to the dust the already 
wearied frame of him whose patient fortitude, whose unem- 
bittered charity, whose never-failing trust in the guiding hand of 
God had brought the nation, weltering through a sea of blood, yet 
one and indivisible, to quietude and peace. On that day, Abra- 
ham Lincoln laid down his life for America, the last and costliest 
sacrifice upon the altar of freedom. 

Today, in this inspiring presence, we raise a symbol of grati- 
tude for all who are blest by that sacrifice. But in all this vast as- 
semblage there are none more grateful, none more reverent, than 
the twelve million black Americans, who, with their fellow-citi- 
zens of every race, pay devout homage to him who was for them, 
more truly than for any other group, the author of their freedom. 
There is no question that Abraham Lincoln died to save the 
Union. It is equally true that to the last extremity he defended 
the rights of the States. But, when the last veteran has stacked 



his arms on fame's eternal camping ground ; when only the mem- 
ory of high courage and deep devotion remains to inspire the 
noble sons of valient fathers ; at such a time, the united voice of 
grateful posterity will say : The claim of greatness for Abraham 
Lincoln lies in this, that amid doubt and distrust, against the 
counsel of chosen advisers, in the hour of the nation's utter peril, 
he put his trust in God and spoke the word that gave freedom to 
a race, and vindicated the honor of a nation conceived in liberty 
and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

HAS THE SACRIFICE BEEN JUSTIFIED? 

But some one will ask: Has such a sacrifice been justified? 
Has such martyrdom produced its worthy fruits ? I speak for the 
Negro race. Upon us, more perhaps than upon any other group 
of the nation, rests the immediate obligation to justify so dear a 
price for our emancipation. In answer let me review the Negro's 
past upon American soil. No group has been more loyal. Whether 
bond or free, the Negro has served alike his country's need. Let 
it never be omitted from the nation's annals that the blood of a 
black man — Crispus Attucks — was the first to be shed for this na- 
tion's freedom. So again, when the world was threatened with 
disaster and the deciding hand of America was lifted to stay the 
peril, her black soldiers were among the first to cross the treach- 
erous sea and the last to leave the trenches. No one is more sen- 
sible than the Negro himself of his incongruous position in the 
great American Republic. But be it recorded, to his everlasting 
credit, that no failure to reap the full reward of his sacrifices has 
ever in the least degree qualified his loyalty or cooled his pa- 
triotic fervor. 

In like manner has he served his country in the pursuits of 
peace. From the first blows that won the virgin soil from the wil- 
derness to the sudden marvelous expansion of our industry that 
went so far to win the late war, the Negro has been the nation's 
greatest single asset in the development of its resources. Es- 
pecially is this true in the South where his uncomplaining toil 
sustained the splendors of that life which gave to the nation a 
Washington and a Jefferson, a Jackson and a Lee. And after- 
wards, when devastating war had levelled this fair structure 
with the ground, the labor of the freedmen restored it to its pres- 
ent proportions, more substantial and more beautiful than be- 
fore. 

While all this was going on, in spite of limitations within 
and restrictions without, he still found the way, through indus- 
try, integrity, and thrift, to acquire 22,000,000 acres of land, 



600,000 homes, and 45,000 churches. Afer less than sixty years 
of freedom Negroes operate 78 banks, 100 insurance companies, 
and 50,000 other business enterprises with a combined capital of 
more than $150,000,000. Besides all this, there are within the 
race 60,000 professional men, 44,000 school-teachers, and 400 
newspapers and magazines ; while its general illiteracy has been 
reduced to twenty-six per cent. Still the Negro race is but at 
the beginning of its development ; so that if anything in its his- 
tory could justify the sacrifice that has been made, it is this : that 
a race possessing such remarkable capacity for advancement has 
taken full advantage of its freedom to develop its latent powers 
for itself and for the nation. A race that has produced a Fred- 
erick Douglass in the midst of slavery, and a Booker Washington 
in the aftermath of reconstruction, has gone far to justify its 
emancipation. And the nation where such achievement is pos- 
sible is full worthy of such heroic sacrifice. 

But Lincoln did not die for the Negro alone. He freed a na- 
tion as well as a race. Those conflicting forces planted two 
hundred and fifty years before had slowly divided the nation in 
spirit, in ideals, and in policy. Passing suddenly beyond the bit- 
terness of controversy, his death served more than war itself to 
emphasize the enormity of the breach that had developed be- 
tween the sections. Not until then was there a full realization of 
the deep significance of his prophetic words: "This nation can- 
not endure half slave and half free." 

That tragic event shocked the conscience of the nation and 
stirred a great resolve to establish forever the priceless heritage 
so dearly bought. From that day the noblest minds tnd hearts, 
both North and South, were bent on healing the breach and restor- 
ing the Union. With a devotion that counted neither personal loss 
nor gain, Abraham Lincoln held steadfastly to an ideal for the 
Republic that measured at full value the worth of each race and 
section, cherishing at the same time the hope that under God all 
should share alike in the blessings of freedom. Now we rejoice 
in the far-seeing vision and the unswerving faith that held firmly 
to its single purpose, even in the midst of reproach, and preserved 
for all posterity the integrity of the nation. 

Lincoln has not died in vain. Slowly through the years that 
noble spirit has been permeating every section of our land and 
country. Sixty years ago he stood in lonely grandeur above a 
torn and bleeding nation, a towering figure of patient righteous- 
ness. Today his spirit animates the breasts of millions of his 
countrymen who unite with us to pay tribute to his lofty character 
and his immortal deeds. 



AN EXPERIMENT IN HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS 

And now the whole world turns with anxious hearts and 
eager eyes toward America. In the providence of God there has 
been started on these shores the great experiment of the ages — an 
experiment in human relationships where men and women of 
every nation, of every race and creed, are thrown together in daily 
contact. Here we are engaged, consciously or unconsciously, in the 
great problem of determining how different races can, not only 
live together in peace, but co-operate in working out a higher and 
better civilization than has yet been achieved. At the extremes 
the white and black races face each other. Here in America these 
two races are charged under God with the responsibility 
of showing the world how individuals, as well as races, 
may differ most widely in color and inheritance and at the same 
time make themselves helpful and even indispensable to each 
other's progress and prosperity. This is especially true in the 
South where the black man is found in greatest numbers and 
where the two races are thrown into closest contact. And there 
today are found black men and white men who are working to- 
gether in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln to establish in fact what 
his death established in principle: that a nation conceived in 
liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created 
equal, can endure. 

As we gather on this consecrated spot his spirit must re- 
joice that sectional rancours and racial antagonisms are soften- 
ing more and more into mutual understanding and effective co- 
operation. And I like to think that here today, while we dedicate 
this symbol of our gratitude, the nation is dedicated anew 
by its own determined will to fulfill to the last letter the task im- 
posed upon it by the martyred dead : that here it highly resolves 
that the humblest citizen, of whatever color or creed, shall en- 
joy that equal opportunity and unhampered freedom for which 
the immortal Lincoln gave the last full measure of devotion. 

And the progress of events confirms this view. Step by step 
has the nation been making its way forward in the spirit of the 
great Emancipator. And nowhere is this more true than in that 
section which sixty years ago seemed least in accord with his 
spirit and purpose, yet at this hour, in many things, is vying with 
the rest of the nation toward the fulfillment of his hopes. 

Twelve million black Americans share in the rejoicing of 
this hour. As yet, no other name so warms the heart or stirs the 
depths of their gratitude as that of Abraham Lincoln. To him 
above all others we owe the privilege of sharing as fellow-citizens 
in the consecration of this spot and the dedication of this shrine. 



8 

In the name of Lincoln twelve million black Americans pledge to 
the nation their continued loyalty and their unreserved co-op- 
eration in every effort to realize in deeds the lofty principles estab- 
lished by his martyrdom. "With malice toward none, with char- 
ity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the 
right," may we, one and all, black and white, North and South, 
strive on to finish the work which he so nobly began: to make 
America an example for all the world of equal justice and equal 
opportunity for all. 



7 t, D #19 j.o z*j. aw 33